Essential oils are made from the extracts of plants and naturally occur in plants.
The name ‘essential oil comes from the type of oil it is – it contains the ‘essence’ of a plant’s fragrance.
Widely used in perfumes and cosmetics, essential oils also have medicinal uses, especially therapeutically, as well as culinary uses.
And because they’re plant-based, it’s reasonable to assume that they don’t have any environmental impact. But that sadly isn’t the case.
Lots of plants are needed to extract enough essential oil to be sold – according to The New Yorker, “more than a million rose petals [are needed] to make an ounce of rose oil”. So, although essential oils might not ruin the environment through use, unsustainable practices and emissions contribute a great deal to environmental harm.
Are essential oils eco-friendly?
The good news? Essential oils are 100% natural, unlike fragrance oils.
The bad news? The essential oil industry is unsustainable and causes harm to the environment.
The most popular essential oils include lavender, peppermint, lemon, frankincense, rosemary, rose oil, and eucalyptus. These naturally occurring essential oils aren’t directly polluting the environment, but instead, the production of essential oil and transportation into shops are what harms the environment.
It takes around 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, and 1,500 lemons to produce a single pound of each essential oil. The weather and climate can also affect how much each plant produces annually, increasing the number of plants needed.
Pesticides are commonly used when farming plants for essential oils because of how many must be cultivated per farm. There are no certifications used for essential oils, so companies don’t have to mention whether pesticides were used during cultivation. They can even lie because there are few ways of proving it.
Worse still, many essential oils come from plants listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Eucalyptus radiata, one of two eucalyptus species popularly used for essential oils, is listed as Near Threatened, while Santalum album, the Indian sandalwood, is vulnerable and the population is still decreasing. The threats to sandalwood include:
- Demand for sandalwood exceeds the rate of supply.
- Illegal harvesting and over-exploitation over years, maybe decades.
- High value of wood and oil in the international market is linked to smuggling.
- Overgrazing and fire.
- Spike disease also threatens the species.
Unsustainable practices and illegal harvesting together create an inevitability of extinction of species without proper care and legislation.
After harvesting or cultivating the plants for essential oils, extracting the essential oils must be done.
Extraction is very resource-intensive, and some methods of extraction use great amounts of water and heat in order to extract the oils. Add in the emissions from exporting them from countries like the United States, India, China, and more, the environmental impact of essential oils keeps going up.
It’s important to remember that most goods have these same impacts, even paper. The main concern with essential oils is the impact on ecosystems.
In the article from The New Yorker, an environmental scientist specializing in frankincense called Anjanette DeCarlo said: “If the demand keeps up without proper controls, we risk causing an ecological crash of a rare and endangered ecosystem.”
Some essential oils can be used against pests, but many are harmful to pets or the ecosystem.
A study into using tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil as pest control against invasive mosquito larvae found that it would not only harm the target species. While lavender oil is safe for dogs when diluted and can be used to repel fleas, lavender is toxic to cats. It can be toxic to cats if applied to their skin, eaten or licked, or even inhaled if you use it with a diffuser.
Do essential oils pollute the environment?
Not every pollutant is synthetic, and essential oils can pollute the environment.
Some essential oils are toxic to aquatic life, such as peppermint (Mentha piperita) oil. In the safety data sheet for Peppermint Oil Piperita, it’s noted that it is “toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects” and should not be discharged into drains, water courses, or onto the ground. Eucalyptus oil is also listed as toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.
Washing out a bottle that contained essential oil isn’t as easy as it might seem, since many cannot and should not be washed down a drain – or even used in a bath. While spillages should be cleaned up by absorbing non-combustible material, you have to check your local waste treatment facilities to find out what to do with empty bottles.
Alternatively, if you have leftover oil, you can add them to homemade cleaning products, candles, or perfume. Don’t add essential oil to handmade soap or laundry unless you are sure, and have checked its safety data sheet, that it isn’t toxic to aquatic life!
How essential oils are made
There are three ways of extracting essential oils.
The first is steam distillation, where steam is directed through the plant and vaporizes any lighter chemicals. When the steam is condensed through a cooling process, the essential oil is generated alongside the hydrolat or hydrosol. Rose water is one example of hydrosol, which is harvested from steam distillation alongside rose oil.
Expression is another way of extracting essential oil. By grating or scraping the peel of a citrus fruit, the oil is released. Zesting a lemon is an example of expression, because the scent of lemon rising in the air is a form of essential oil extraction. During expression, care has to be taken to capture the oil before it can dissipate into the air.
Supercritical CO2 extraction uses carbon dioxide as a solvent. By adding and then eliminating carbon dioxide, a high-grade essential oil can be extracted.
Where to buy eco-friendly essential oils
While all essential oils are eco-friendly themselves, these companies all focus on sustainability. Purchasing from companies like these helps reduce the amount of unsustainable harvesting.
Check out their about pages and promises to learn more about what they value!
Mountain Rose Herbs is one company committed to sustainability. They are zero waste, process certified organic herbs, support ethical harvesting, and are part of the Fair for Life program (a type of fair trade certification).
Another eco-friendly company is Peace With The Wild, a family-run business who sell plastic-free and natural products since 2018. They believe in being conscious consumers and switching to reusables, reducing waste, and living more sustainable lifestyles. Their essential oils are touted as “vegan, cruelty-free, [and] organic”, and ethically and sustainably sourced.
Rocky Mountain Oils promises to responsibly source their essential oils and uses recycled packaging. In their S.A.A.F.E. Promise, the company dedicates itself to vetting suppliers, testing samples, and ensuring the quality and authenticity of their essential oils.